Have you ever heard of the “green wall”? According to ethnobotanist and clinical herbalist Hayden Stebbins, the green wall refers to the concept that plants, and the natural world-at-large, form a backdrop to our everyday experience, but until we really tune into the flora and fauna of life, we’re not really paying proper attention to any of it. As he put it, plants “just form the background to the world that you live in.”
In our conversation, Stebbins led us through the basics of ethnobotany and made several suggestions for ways to incorporate the natural world into our lives more often. We discussed the phenomenon of cultural appropriation in the plant world, the ethics of transferring plants from culture to culture, and the case for eating more fermented foods (and, perhaps, fewer eggs).
The Assemblage: Can you define ethnobotany?
Hayden Stebbins: It’s the study of human interaction with plants. My teacher Marc Williams frames himself as an ethnobotanist, and he gets into all the different uses that we have with plants. I’m ethnobotanist who focuses on plants as medicine and as food, their role in the environment and the interplay between people and plants.
There’s a lot of history of ethnobotanists going into different cultures and stealing knowledge or using knowledge inappropriately, and that can create real issues in a lot of different areas. But since we’ve gotten so far from nurturing our relationship to plants in general in the United States, there’s a big role for people to take a step back and look at what’s around us. What are some ways that we can use what’s around us to help us with our worst problems?
TA: What’s one thing people can do to incorporate plants into their lives on a daily basis, even if they live in a city?
HS: The easiest way to really get into it is to start taking bitters. Bitters are what are traditionally eaten or taken before meals, such as salads. That sensation of bitter starts your digestive process: your body increases production of saliva, the stomach produces more acid, the gall bladder releases bile, and your migrating motor complexes start pushing food down your digestive tract.
As somebody who lives in the U.S., you’re likely not getting enough bitters. Before meals, taking bitters can help stimulate that digestive process, and really help with issues of the liver and digestion.
TA: Are you using “bitters” as an umbrella term here, or do you literally mean bitters, as in the common ingredient in cocktails?
HS: It’s an umbrella term for plant extract that has a bitter flavor to it. You can buy it from an herbalist who makes specific combinations of different bitter plants, or you can go to a liquor store that has bitters for sale. You can also make bitter teas, and start a little ritual for yourself of having tea one to three times a day. It allows you ten minutes to do something for yourself.
TA: What are some other things you can do to connect with plants?
HS: Cooking and getting into fermentation. New York City in particular has such an amazing blend of cultures where one can learn about different dishes and the traditional way that people cook different food and meals. There are a lot of resources for improving what we eat and also using very simple ingredients to make delicious food.
TA: Cooking and fermenting sound like good ways to slow down, particularly if you’re not eating out all the time.
HS: There’s a moment of slowing down while you’re actually preparing the ferment, but actually, it decreases your cooking time. Rather than having to prepare a whole meal, you can make a lot of quick meals that fill you up.
TA: I have to ask — I notice that you have glowing skin. What’s your secret? Or do you just have glowy skin?
HS: I may have glowy skin. I’ve been told that. It’s a hard question to answer because there’s so many different things that go into your life. When I do my herbal practice, people say, “Oh, what’s the herb I can take for this?” First off, it’s a combination of sleep, exercise, eating well, and general outlook. I’ve definitely had a lot of low times where I’m not feeling as good or eating as well.
It really depends on the person. I had somebody come to me and their main complaint was that they were breaking out all of the time. I gave her a protocol: try to stop eating eggs, run three miles a day, and drink more water. I also had her stop using facial care products. I just had her rinse her face when she showered, nothing more. Within two weeks, she didn’t have that anymore. That’s not going to work for everybody; this was a person that had a lot of other stuff figured out.
For other people, it could be hormonal or a long list of things. If you can, find a good herbalist, somebody who is going to take a full approach because there’s no one thing, even in herbalism, that is going to make things better.
TA: What is it about eggs and running?
HS: In my practice that I learned from Thomas Easley and Matthew Wood, there are six main foods that most people are more reactive to. Eggs are just one of them. Running lowers your stress levels, and that can have a huge impact.
Also, I focus on the liver because your liver is what makes most of the cholesterol in your body, and also breaks down most of the cholesterol. So if you have skin issues or they come on at certain times of the month, you might want to look into hormonal issues, which stem often from your liver.
TA: Going back to something you said earlier — how do you suggest people break down that “green wall”?
HS: One thing I would recommend is to take a walk through whatever green space you have locally and try to find a place where you can slow down. Maybe its a tree that seems interesting, or maybe a blooming flower or a mushroom that’s popping up. Make it a point to get to that once a week or once a day.
So many different cultures use one place that you go as centering. Some people use meditation; other people make their morning coffee; some people read the news. But connecting with nature is another way.
Especially in cities and especially in New York, there’s so many different ways to get involved. The New York City Audubon does a warbler watch in Central Park, and I saw more warblers at eye level in the spring than I’d ever seen in my life anywhere else.
My teacher Marc Williams runs an online, by-donation course at Botany Everyday, and he takes you through a book called Botany in a Day, which allows you to observe the changes through the seasons and also get to know plants by family and in your surrounding area.
TA: It’s an interesting concept, to come back to the same plant or a mushroom or a tree instead of, say, taking a long wander through nature. What’s the psychology behind that?
HS: You start to see that plant over time. And when you do that, you see how it changes through the seasons. And I think that’s one of the best ways to stop seeing plants as background — to see that they are individual organisms, and to see that they change. Just like visiting a friend. If you see a friend and you’re just walking by and you say, “Hi,” every morning, that’s different than actually stopping and having a conversation with them.